The pantheon of Hindustani instruments includes some that play a dual role. They provide accompaniment and can also feature as solo instruments. Of these, the role of the harmonium and the tabla as solo instruments has been discussed earlier in this column.
The sarangi, a fretless bowed instrument that comes close to simulating the human voice, is an instrument that was favoured for accompanying khayal and thumri-dadra vocal recitals. For a variety of reasons, the instrument is not as popular with vocalists as it was earlier, but for the moment, we will dwell on its role as a solo instrument.
The sarangi player holds the bow in the right hand and presses the cuticles of the left hand against one of the three main strings to produce the desired pitches. There are 35 sympathetic strings, which means that even before one ventures to play it, tuning the sarangi successfully is a formidable task.
Sarangi players have been associated with different gharanas or lineages of hereditary musicians and successive generations of disciples. Specific playing technique and stylistic features identified each of the gharanas. For instance, the technique of handling the bow, and the balanced use of either hand or a greater emphasis on one, are some of the defining technical aspects.
As for musical style, gharanas may differ in the choice of repertoire in terms of raag and type of compositions. Some may choose to reproduce vocal compositions, while others may prefer gats or instrumental compositions. The latter is more a recent trend.
Well-known sarangi player Murad Ali, who belongs to the sixth generation of hereditary sarangi players, informed me that there are particular areas that one can observe closely to determine the competence of a sarangi player.
According to him, the ideal technique would require balanced coordination between hands, a good tonal quality, precise intonation, and the ability to present a varied repertoire. In case the performance repertoire consists of vocal forms, it should include compositional forms like khayal, thumri-dadra, tappa, among others. The movement of the bow should represent the words of the vocal compositions.
The above is a tribute to Bundu Khan, one of the foremost exponents of the sarangi, known equally for his accompaniment to vocalists and for his solo recitals. This tribute by Rajesh Bahadur, the maestro’s disciple, was broadcast on the All India Radio.